learning language

Critics: Lack of diversity in Indiana dual language policy is a lost opportunity

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Zoe Roman, a kindergartener in Global Prep Academy's dual language program, fills in a writing worksheet.

When Mariama Carson was a teacher in Pike Township, she saw firsthand how the heritage of her Spanish-speaking students was constantly being brushed to the side as they were encouraged to learn English.

“What we were doing was pushing down anything other than English,” said Carson. “We have students who are native Spanish-speakers who cannot read or write or send an email or text correctly to their own family members. That is wrong.”

So Carson decided to do something about it: She created a dual language school called Global Prep Academy where kids would learn half the day in English and half the day in Spanish as a new innovation charter school in Indianapolis Public Schools.

The dual-language method of immersing students in their native language for part of their class time and in English for another part is growing in popularity across the country as studies show it’s one of the most effective ways to help non-English speaking children master English while gaining the ability to read and write in their native language.

Read: 20 years of Spanish immersion make Lawrence Township a model for Indiana

The programs are also popular with parents of English-speaking children who want their kids to learn a second language from a young age, so Indiana launched a pilot program two years ago that made funds available to schools that wanted to create or expand dual language programs.

Global Prep, which is located in the School 44 building on the city’s west side, was one of nine schools that split $1 million in funding over two years for the programs.

But critics say the money isn’t being used as effectively as it could be because several of the schools that received the funds enroll mostly English-speaking kids.

"The research that is often referred to to sell these programs or to popularize them … is actually the research that applies to progress that includes English-learners,"Barbara Kennedy, Center for Applied Linguistics

That means the money isn’t helping as many children learn English as it could. It’s also not harnessing the full potential of dual language programs to help English-speaking children learn a language like Spanish from being around peers who speak that language at home.

That’s a lost opportunity, said Barbara Kennedy, director of dual language and bilingual education services for the Center for Applied Linguistics, a national nonprofit that researches and advocates for language learning in education.

“The research that is often referred to to sell these programs or to popularize them … is actually the research that applies to progress that includes English-learners,” Kennedy said.

Studies of dual language programs conducted over the better part of the past decade have shown that “two-way” language immersion programs that mix students from different backgrounds post strong academic results for all students involved, due in part because students can serve as models for each other.

But when Indiana lawmakers created the dual language grant program in 2015, they put few restrictions on the money, making no requirements that funds go to schools with high numbers of students learning English. Class makeup was never mentioned in the law that created the program or emphasized in discussions surrounding its passage. The only requirement was that programs start in kindergarten or first grade and divide instructional time so that students spend half of their class time speaking English and the other half speaking another language.

As a result Global Prep and another new program in Marion County, Warren Township’s Pleasant Run Elementary School, are the only grant recipients currently making a point of enrolling equal numbers of English-learners and native English-speakers — the ratio that experts say is the ideal mix for programs like these.

Kindergarten students at Global Prep Academy.
PHOTO: Photo by Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat
The students learn to identify shapes and compare and contrast them by size, number of sides and color.
Kindergarten students at Global Prep Academy.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Kindergarten students at Global Prep Academy work on sorting by name. Their teacher looks on as each student takes a turn.
A kindergarten class at Global Prep Academy's dual language program gather for a lesson in sorting.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A kindergarten class at Global Prep Academy’s dual language program gather for a lesson in sorting.
Three others in Goshen, Logansport and West Noble have not fully launched their two-way programs, but the schools enroll about 30 percent of students from households where English is not the primary language and could end up with programs with more equal ratios of kids. The other four enroll primarily English-speaking kids.

The four schools with mostly native English-speaking kids took slightly more than half of the $1 million in funding — $532,792 — but enrolled small numbers of English learners, between 0.5 percent and 12.2 percent.

That’s a dynamic that upsets researchers like Trish Morita-Mullaney from Purdue University.

“Dual language immersion is to historically repair harm to those communities,” Morita-Mullaney said. “Otherwise it’s … just benefitting people who are already benefitting.”

The grant recipients aren’t doing anything wrong, but advocates like Morita-Mullaney and Carson are hoping that if lawmakers next year discuss the possibility of extending the grant program, they’ll consider including incentives for schools that target a mix of kids from different language backgrounds.

“If culture and language matter, as we know it does, we have to make sure we are equalizing opportunities for all kids,” said Carson. “Dual-language programs initially were set up for Spanish-speaking kids.”

When dual language dollars go to schools where most students speak English, she said, there’s a danger that the programs could become little more than an enrichment program for already advantaged children who want to boast foreign language proficiency on their college applications.

“It wasn’t for these kids to get this economic advantage and now they’re bilingual,” Carson said. “It was from an equity standpoint, and that is who these programs should be serving.”

Not everyone shares this view, however.

It can be difficult politically for states like Indiana, where just 4.8 percent of students are English learners, to restrict funding for popular programs to schools that have a high number of immigrants.

One of last year’s grant recipients was a school in rural Batesville that got a little more than $172,000 to start a Mandarin immersion program.

Students at Batesville Elementary School learn in a small group from their teacher. The class is part of a language immersion program in Mandarin.
PHOTO: Melissa Burton
Students at Batesville Elementary School learn in a small group from their teacher. The class is part of a language immersion program in Mandarin.

Melissa Burton, director of student learning in Batesville said she knows the students in her program aren’t diverse. Nearly all of the district’s elementary school students — 97 percent — are white and the population of English-learners is decreasing, but dual langauge is a way for Batesville to bring cultural knowledge and understanding to kids who might otherwise never encounter a culture different from their own.

“I’m just so thrilled that a tiny little town like Batesville, at a small school, that we can give our students this opportunity,” Burton said. “It’s important that kids know a second language … I’m hoping (the program) draws more diverse enrollment to our school corporation that may not happen just because of our location.”

"It’s about exploring culture and building relationships, and in a place where we don’t have a lot of diversity, it’s even more important to do those things. This program will change the culture of our school."Melissa Burton, Batesville Community Schools

Batesville’s program currently enrolls about 50 kindergarteners in two classes. Each year, the district plans to add grades until the program serves kindergarten to fifth grade. As kids grow into middle and high school, the district is planning to add Chinese literacy classes and as well as classes taught in Mandarin so students can keep up their skills. The district also plans to offer Chinese culture classes for all students in the district.

“Every teacher will be a Chinese culture teacher,” Burton said. “It’s not just about the language. It’s about exploring culture and building relationships, and in a place where we don’t have a lot of diversity, it’s even more important to do those things. This program will change the culture of our school.”

Conversations about whether money for dual language programs should target children who are learning English have not gotten much attention in the statehouse since it passed. In fact, it’s not even clear at the moment that any money will be set aside in next year’s budget for dual language programs.

Peggy Mayfield, R-Martinsville, who originally championed the grant program law, says she has no plans to reintroduce any specific bills next year to extend it — which means targeted funds for the programs is running out.

The state says it’s working to help the nine participating schools find ways to be more efficient and sustain their programs, but Mayfield says she hopes funding doesn’t dry up.

“If this is something that is highly desired by parents and teachers and children, we need to give a close look to see how can we make this an ongoing thing,” Mayfield said.

A kindergarten student reaches for crayons during a lesson at Global Prep Academy. The school has a Spanish dual language program for grades K-2.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A kindergarten student reaches for crayons during a lesson at Global Prep Academy. The school has a Spanish dual language program for grades K-2.

Kim Park, who runs the program in Warren, isn’t too worried that the grant program is ending. Her school is determined to find the money to continue and has been thoughtful about buying books, software and other materials that can last for multiple years.

Nathan Williamson who is the director of early learning and intervention with the education department, said the state hopes the success and demand for dual language immersion classes is enough to encourage the legislature to continue the grants.

But for some, it’s more personal.

Cesar Roman, a parent of a Global prep student, wants to see policymakers ensure the programs stick around — and not just because his daughter Zoe is in one. A native Spanish-speaker, Roman learned in a dual language classroom as a child growing up in East Chicago.

“I have seen the benefits first-hand,” Roman said. “You do have to make some sort of policy or mandate to make sure that there is equity in the way that the funds are being distributed and that learning is taking place for all students.”

Homework

The Detroit district’s first homework policy is in the works. See how much homework it recommends your child do every night.

Detroit students who are drowning in homework — or unable to complete it because of challenges at home — could soon find relief in a new policy.

The Detroit district on Tuesday proposed putting a cap on the amount of time students in different grade levels spend on homework. Kindergartners would be limited to 10 minutes of homework, while high school juniors and seniors would see their homework load capped at three hours total, across all subjects.

The proposed policy, which a school board subcommittee is now considering, would also prohibit schools from penalizing students who can’t do homework assignments in the allotted time. It would also prohibit teachers from assigning grades on homework assignments and limit how much they can count whether students completed homework to just 10 percent of their final grades.

The policy, which is the new district’s first attempt at a formal homework policy, may address educators’ concerns that a student’s ability to complete homework reflects how much or how little support she receives at home, not her academic abilities. Indeed, some research has suggested that homework can widen performance gaps between students from affluent and low-income families. Research has also found little benefit to homework for young students and diminishing returns for older students after a certain amount of time.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he expects the policy to be welcomed by local families and educators.

“This will be a shift,” he said. “I think for parents this will be well received and for teachers it will be well received.”

But questions are already emerging about how the policy would be implemented — and whether it should be.

“I think that it’s awesome,” board member and former teacher, principal, and superintendent Deborah Hunter-Harvill said. “But is it realistic? I doubt it.”

Because a maximum number of minutes of homework time per night is for all subjects, board member Misha Stallworth questioned whether teachers would need to use more time to coordinate assignments with their colleagues, taking away from their own lesson planning.

District officials are still trying to figure out how to implement and enforce the new time limits, Vitti said.

They might discover that involved parents could be an obstacle. Dana Dacres, a parent of five children attending Burton International Academy, said she spends close to half an hour on homework every night with her kindergartner alone — time that she said is valuable.

“I can see the idea — they don’t want the kids coming home after spending six, seven, or eight hours in the classroom and then having to ‘take your work home with you,’” she said, “but the reality is that some kids need a little bit extra.”

Dacres said she does like that the policy might force students to work more efficiently.

“The idea is to get the work done within the allotted amount of time,” she said. “I like the idea of students becoming good time managers.”

The policies are heard first at the public subcommittee meeting where members can suggest changes. They are then read at a public school board meeting before being voted upon by the full board.

Find the maximum number of minutes of homework per grade below.

 

First Person

Let’s solve the right problems for Detroit’s students with disabilities — not recycle old ones

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

As Superintendent Nikolai Vitti approaches his first anniversary of leading the struggling Detroit Public Schools Community District, I commend him for his energy and vision. In particular, I applaud his focus on developing a robust curriculum and hiring great teachers, the foundations of any great school district.

However, his recently announced plans to create new specialized programs for students with disabilities are disconcerting to me, given decades of research demonstrating the benefits of inclusion.

Specifically, Vitti has discussed the possibility of creating specialized programs for students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments. The motivation is twofold: to meet students’ needs and to offer distinct programs that will attract parents who have fled Detroit in search of higher quality schools.

I’ve spent 25 years both studying and actively trying to improve schools for students with disabilities, and I can understand why Vitti’s proposal may have appeal. (I’m now the head of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.) But while the specialized programs might fill a critical need immediately, I have seen the downside of creating such segregated programming.

Once the programs are created, parents will seek them out for appearing to be the better than weak programs in inclusive settings. This will reinforce the belief that segregation is the only way to serve students with learning differences well.

This is a problematic mindset that we must continually try to shift. One need only to examine decades of special education case law, or the outcomes of districts designed solely for students with disabilities — such as District 75 in New York City or the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support — to see that such segregated settings can become one-way paths to limited access to a robust curriculum, peers without disabilities, or high standards, even when those districts are created with the best of intentions.

While a small proportion of students with the most significant support needs — typically 2-3 percent of students identified for special education — can benefit from more segregated and restrictive settings, the vast majority of students with disabilities can thrive in inclusive settings.

Vitti is clearly committed to ensuring that students with disabilities have access to essential supports and services, especially students with dyslexia. He has spoken passionately about his own experiences growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia as well as watching two of his four children struggle with dyslexia. And Vitti and his wife started a school for students with dyslexia in Jacksonville, Florida.

However, I would urge him to reconsider his approach in favor of exploring strategies to integrate robust supports and services into existing schools. By integrating, rather than separating, Vitti can ensure that all students have access to the general education curriculum and to teachers with demonstrated subject knowledge.

Furthermore, integrated programs ensure that students with disabilities have access to their typically developing peers and, conversely, that these peers have access to special education teachers’ expertise.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing such inclusive programs in action around the country. For example, at San Diego’s Thrive Public Schools, there is no discernible distinction between students receiving special education services and students who are not. When I visited earlier this year, I saw how special education teachers work alongside general education teachers and share responsibilities for all students, not just those with disabilities.

At Mott Haven Academy in New York, teachers and school leaders preemptively deter behavioral issues and incorporate opportunities for intentional reflection. Students learn in a restorative environment that is safe, stable, structured, and understanding — particularly benefiting students with disabilities.

I’ve also seen programs designed to serve students with learning disabilities benefit many students. Why would we restrict these instructional practices to schools specifically designed only for students with dyslexia, for example?

I’m convinced that separating students based on their learning needs stands to do harm to both groups and reinforce pernicious stereotypes that students with disabilities need to be separated from their peers — a practice that does not prepare any students well to exist in a society that ideally embraces, rather than shuns, differences.

If Vitti cannot create the least restrictive settings for these students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments in the desired timeline, I encourage him to consider an explicitly short-term solution — say, one to three years — with a specific phase-out deadline. This will enable students to receive critical supports and services while Vitti strives to ensure that students with disabilities are able to access high-quality programs in more inclusive settings.

In the long term, Vitti should strive to weave educating the full range of students with learning differences into the DNA of Detroit’s schools.

It is refreshing to hear an urban superintendent explicitly prioritizing the educational needs of students with disabilities. Vitti’s concerns should energize efforts to address the limited capacity, resources, and training for the benefit of all students. That would be truly innovative, and Detroit has the potential to emerge as a leader — an effort for which Vitti could be very proud.

Lauren Morando Rhim is the executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.